19 February 2012

Punishment On Autopilot Still Stupid

Zero-tolerance policies still lead school administrators to make absurd decisions, like the one made at Lewis-Palmer Middle School in Monument, Colorado where one thirteen year old lent her inhaler to a friend of the same age who seemed to be having an asthma attack. One girl was suspended from school, and the other was expelled, because the inhalers is a "controlled substance" and a zero-tolerance policy was imposed (in a town with no real history of drug dealing problems in its schools) to try to get drug dealing kids out of schools. Untreated asthma attacks are no joke. A prominent Middle Eastern foreign correspondent recently died of one while fleeing Syria on a horse.

Treating a children intervening in a potentially life threatening situation (albeit not as a medical professional might have in the situation), or receiving help in that situation, as no different than juvenile drug dealers is morally bankrupt.

Caryn Collette, the principal at the school who came to the conclusion that she should exercise her discretion to treat these girls in this way is the sort of bureaucratic idiot who according to the Peter Principle recently got appointed to a position beyond her competence (she has only recently served as a principal in the district and this may be the first time she's had to make a real decision like this one after decades as a teacher and then as an assistant principal) and should be deeply ashamed of her immoral and unintelligent decision she made when faced with this situation. Ms. Collette has done great harm to two young girls with hardly contemptible intentions who committed a minor infraction intended for other purposes.

Expelling a middle school girl from school without so much as providing any alternative education plan for her, even though she hadn't even signed any policies about sharing medication that wasn't even hers, and was undeniably accepting help while experiencing physical distress and in a panic making it necessary for her to be sent to the nurses office and to be brought home for the day (and it turned out in retrospect, for good) by an aunt, is proof that Ms. Collette simply lacks good judgment.  Misunderstanding your own health isn't something that should be punished more seriously than the harm one might suffer personally.

Ms. Collette showed much worse judgment than the girls in the case, and more should be expected of her given her life experience and training for just these kinds of events. The girl expelled apparently received a more serious punishment mostly because she was unrepentant and didn't have family that knew how to advocate for her in this situation - it also looks their there were social class distinctions at work.  The student expelled (based on video interviews) didn't have quite the socio-economic capital (race was not a factor) as the student who were merely expelled. 

The school board in the district (which doesn't appear to have had an active role in the matter based on the agendas of their meetings) and the superintendent, John Borman, (himself just less than a year into the job), of course, also deserves criticism for backing up a bad decision made by one of their principals who deserved to be reversed and reprimanded for her conduct. 

Also causing more harm than good is a privacy policy in which school administrators claim, implausibly, that "Some information that has been reported is misleading, and the privacy of student disciplinary records prevents the District from telling the public any details about actions of students involved." The news reporting from people with first hand knowledge of the situation is complete enough that the claim that the reporting is misleading in any way that is material to the situation, almost certainly can't be true.  While the District arguably has privacy obligations (although given that the students involved have gone to the media, that is doubtful), it certainly should use privacy policies to cover up its own deficient decision-making.

The whole point of a zero-tolerance policy is to provide students with transparency about the disciplinary policy, but it can't even achieve that end, and indeed, the notion that privacy interests outweigh the public benefit of making disciplinary and delinquency proceedings involving children public has increasingly appeared to be misguided. The right of both the accused and the public to a public trial has its origins in very natural notions about justice and the force of public knowledge of what happened in a case that can be educational, which an obsession with privacy undermines in this case, and also in other cases where it is applied, for example, to professional discipline cases. This case is one more where the opportunity to educate the students and public about public health and good behavior in a teaching moment was trashed by a misguided privacy policy that has elevated a minor consideration to unreasonable priority on a systemic basis nationwide.

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